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Webmatters : Monument to the 15th Bn at Courcelette

15th Bn Canadian Infantry

48th Highlanders of Canada Insignia

Location

Courcelette is a village some 10 kilometres north-east of the town of Albert, just off the D929 road to Bapaume.

The village green is situated just after the church and the monument sits in the corner behind the village war memorial.

GPS N E Wikimapia
Decimal 50.058867 2.748067 Map

Background

On 1st July 1916 the British launched their Somme offensive on a line stretching from Serre in the north to Carnoy in the south.

The axis of the advance was the Albert-Bapaume Road. To the south of the road the British with the assistance of the French (attacking on their right) made some progress but on the northern side the offensive was held in a bloody stalemate.

The decision was taken that to outflank the German redoubts at Thiepval it would be necessary to take Pozières and then Courcelette.

In August the Australians seized Pozières but at such cost that it was soil taken from this battlefield which was buried with Australia’s Unknown Soldier in Canberra.

On 3rd September the Canadians arrived fresh from Belgian Flanders to take up the gauntlet.

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette took place on 15th September 1916 and was the first time that tanks were used in battle. The task of the Canadians was to capture Courcelette.

The bombardment flattened the old sugar-mill and the Germans were forced back from their front line around the village. After three days of heavy fighting the 22nd Battalion Canadian Infantry had taken the remains of the village—but the “van-doos” had lost a third of their strength in doing so.

On the 18th September the 1st Canadian Division relieved their comrades of the 2nd Division and the rain began to fall. There would be a moment’s pause in the fighting as the plans were put together for an assault on the entire Thiepval Ridge. The next attack would take place on 26th September 1916 along the entire Thiepval Ridge, from that village as far as Courcelette, five kilometres away.

On the left the II Corps were given the task of taking some of the best defended positions in the area.
On the right the Canadian Corps with its 1st Division in the line was ordered to take Regina Trench. On the far side of Courcelette the Canadian 2nd Division would push the front towards Bapaume.

The 1st Division placed its 2nd Brigade next to the British and the 3rd Brigade on the western side of Courcelette village.

Monument to the 15th Bn CEF at Courcelette

The monument at Courcelette

 

3rd Brigade Canadian Infantry

The 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade was made up of four battalions :

  • 13th Battalion Canadian Infantry (Royal Highlanders of Canada)
  • 14th Battalion Canadian Infantry (Royal Montreal Regiment)
  • 15th Battalion Canadian Infantry (48th Highlanders of Canada)
  • 16th Battalion Canadian Infantry (Canadian Scottish)

Many of the Canadian Infantry Battalions were sponsored by Militia units back in Canada and it was from these units that they took their secondary titles and traditions. The soldiers from the three ‘Scottish’ battalions wore the kilt.

The task of the 3rd Brigade was to attack on a front of just over a thousand metres. L-Col Charles Bent’s orders to his 15th Battalion were quite clear.

The 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders) will take by assault the first objective, the German front line; the second objective, a support position, and any other position to and including Regina Trench.

The disposition was as follows : No 1 Coy (Major Girvan) on the right; No 2 Coy (Major Acland) in the centre; No 3 Coy (Major Mavor) on the left with No 4 Coy under Major Turnbull in reserve.

 

Battle plan

During the night of the 25/26th September the Highlanders remained in the front line waiting on Zero at 0530 hours. The men were tense, some probably thought of their families, everyone was worried that the Germans might pre-empt the attack and bombard the trench, crammed with troops. Then at 0530 hours came a change in orders. Zero had been put back to 1235 hours.

At 1000 hours the rum arrived and that helped relieve some of the anxiety. At 1230 the men checked that their rifles were loaded, that grenades were to hand, a final smoke perhaps and then the command : Fix ! Bayonets !

Four minutes later the Canadian machine guns opened their barrage. The Highlanders charged out of their trenches but soon ran into difficulties on their right. Men started to fall and it became evident that a trench that was supposed to be clear was in fact held by Germans who were firing for all they were worth.

Whilst the remainder of the battalion continued on unawares, Major Girvan found himself confronted by about fifty determined defenders. With two ‘bombers’ he ran around the right of the enemy position and attacked it from that flank. Grenades flew and for a moment only chaos reigned.

Here and there the Germans offered a stout resistance but others soon lost their enthusiasm for the fight and surrendered.

In front of Major Acland a machine gun was sweeping the ground and his No 2 Coy was forced to take shelter in the craters. Then from the right appeared Major Girvan and his two bombers. Already behind the Germans, they opened fire and threw grenades at everything. Acland would comment that : “Major Girvan was magnificent”.

Moments later Girvan was badly wounded in the chest. Thinking that his final hour had come he shook hands with Acland who bade him farewell. Girvan would in fact survive the war but his two bombers would fall in 1917—Private Bradley at Vimy and Private Duffy on Hill 70.

The Courcelette plaque

The German front line fell but the battlefield was littered with dead and wounded kilted soldiers. Major Acland now signalled for the battalion to wheel half right and the assault continued its way. Hidden German machine gun nests caused problems and the Highlanders were forced to slow their pace.

At 1330 Major Acland was himself wounded, and like his friend Girvan, few thought that he would survive. He had to be left in a shell crater until midnight when the stretcher bearers were able to go out and help him back to the lines.

Towards 1500 hours the Highlanders were approaching Regina Trench. Given that the wire appeared intact and impenetrable the decision was taken to dig in rather than continue on into the unknown: Major Mavor organised the position and made ready for possible counter-attacks.

During the night the German artillery bombarded their former trenches as well as the village of Courcelette. The stretcher bearers worked under horrendous conditions bringing in the wounded and administering first aid.

The following morning the Highlanders found themselves able to appreciate their position. They were hidden from the view of the Germans but were able, from here and there, to observe the German line.

At 1500 hours a heavy bombardment fell across the battlefield but the expected counter-attack never materialised. In the early hours of the 28th September the battalion was relieved and returned to its billet in Albert.

The battalion had arrived on the front on 4th September and would see a number of further periods in the lines at Courcelette before being finally withdrawn on 14th October 1916.

During that period 164 soldiers were killed and almost 400 injured—two thirds of its nominal strength.

 

The Memorial

Captain Steve Gilbert and the flag carried by his grandfather on the Somme in 1916

Captain Steve Gilbert and the flag carried by his grandfather on the Somme in 1916

This commemorative plaque was unveiled on the 28th September 2013 in the presence of Canadian and French dignitaries by members of the 15th Battalion Memorial Project.

The 15th Bn CEF were sponsored by the 48th Highlanders of Canada a militia unit from Toronto. The regiment has demonstrated its continuing interest in commemorating its First World War combatants by the raising of plaques across the Western Front.

The plaque carries a bilingual account and detailed map of the action.

 

The Inauguration


Xavier Vandendriessche, Maire of Courcelette

Xavier Vandedriessche, Maire of Courcelette

Despite the forebodings of the French Met Office the weather remained warm, sunny and dry. Members of the Project team were joined by villagers led by Xavier Vandedriessche, Maire of Courcelette, Joël Dubreuil – Sous-Préfet de Peronne, and Stéphane Demilly, Député-maire of Albert and Président de la Communauté de Communes du Pays du Coquelicot.

Lt Colonel (Hon) John Newman of the 48th Highlanders and M Vandendriessche unveiled the plaque and wreaths were laid on behalf of the Regiment, the village, French and Canadian governments, 48th Highlanders Old Comrades Association, and the Royal British Legion.

The gathered onlookers were addressed by Commander René Tremblay on behalf of the Canadian Embassy and M Joël Dubreuil – Sous-Préfet de Peronne.

We were joined by members of the Somme Battlefield Pipe Band and three members of the historical association 14-18 en Somme; two dressed in French 1914 uniforms and another in Canadian uniform.

The flag which was used both on this day and for other inaugurations was owned by William Stephenson, the Scots born grandfather of Captain Steve Gilbert. William enlisted on 1st November 1915 and was, on his arrival in France in July 1916, assigned to the 12th Brigade Canadian Field Artillery.

He was only in France a few months when on 19th October 1916 he was wounded by shrapnel at Courcelette as the Canadian Corps prepared to once again assault Regina Trench. For William the war was over and he was invalided back to Canada. The flag, which he carried throughout his service, has therefore a particularly vibrant link to the village.

Some photos from the inauguration

The dignitaries from France and Canada Members of 14-18 en Somme in period uniforms The unveiling by M Vandendriessche and Hon Colonel John Newman Commander René Tremblay on behalf of the Canadian Embassy Joël Dubreuil – Sous-Préfet de Peronne The prayers were led by Canadian Chaplain Major Lublink They shall grow not old... Yves Holbeque from the Somme Battlefield Pipe Band After the ceremony Keeping the local press informed Happy Highlanders M Vandendriescche received a pair of plaques from General Greg Young Hon Colonel Newman, M Vandendriessche and General Young at the monument

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